Valerie Allen (John Hay College of Justice, CUNY)

45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2010

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: On The Question of Style

Without Style

Figure 1. Jennider Khoshbin, Life Bubble

A trip to the OED will tell us that the word style, in currency for over 700 years, comes to us via Old French from Latin stilus, meaning a stylus or nib, as if we could speak of someone being entire without nib or rather nibbish. By a synecdochal move style comes to name the words that emerge from under the scribe’s hand as the stylus moves across the folium, and then, by another conceptual gathering, the inked words on the page come to express the words “as they ought to be expressed” — I modify this phrase from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which translated very literally read: “it is not sufficient to have what (things) ought to be said but also necessary [to have] how such (things) ought to be said.”[1] Style is not ineffable but a function of words arranged in certain ways. We are doubly reminded of this by the words in the Greek and Latin that we translate as “style:” lexis and elocutio.

What sort of balance do we seek between, as Aristotle pitches it, “what we ought to say” and “how we ought to say it”? The question is thousands of years old yet into its large picture is inscribed the very real concerns that it generates for us daily. How we resolve the balance between style and substance bears decisive consequences for scholarly reputations and for audience. The long battle between style and substance begins at least with Plato and the sophists and, while this is not the place for sketching its history, I will mention a couple of formative turns. One, the logical turn of the early modern era, marked by Descartes’ quest for certainty but before that by Petrus Ramus splitting the five canons of rhetoric — invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery — into two groups: he assigned invention and arrangement to philosophy and left rhetoric, now shrunk to style, memory, and delivery — the narrower and shallower. Style now becomes a quest for the effective way of presenting what philosophy had already ascertained to be correct. Two, the “ordinary language turn,” set into motion by wrters as various as G.E. Moore, Jürgen Habermas, Stephen Toulmin, and Chaim Perelman. They show how a claim cannot be abstracted from the language in which it is cast, in contrast to formal logic, which aims for a purely symbolic notation, emptied of content, and with a truth-value abstracted from the words of the sentence. These compass points, from which we aim today to get our bearings in seeking to establish how to write as we ought, indicate the breadth of the terrain. In our little way, we join an ongoing dispute between style and substance, means and end, appearance and reality, rhetoric and philosophy, form and content.

By using this long-winded phrase (to write as we ought) I try for a moment to avoid nouns because they imply that style is some thing, and instead I take refuge in the subjunctive in order to cast style as mood, a grammatical function of the verb-system that orients the verb toward reality in a certain way (declarative, hypothetical, etc.). Mood identifies the mode in which the verb is. Mood and mode are basically the same word (from Latin modus), so we can think of grammatical mood in terms of musical mode. Metaphor or analogy is perhaps the only way of getting access to style as a general concept, for it is impossible to get without style (in the archaic sense of “outside”)[2] in order to think it. Style or mood and being are conjoint: “in every case Dasein always has some mood;” writes Heidegger;[3] being is always in a mood — “we are never free of moods,” he says.[4] Heidegger’s word for mood (Stimmung) is a musical term, meaning the tuning of an instrument.[5] All communicative acts have modality. Beneath the positive sense of style as elegance or idiosyncracy, the pervasive sense of style imbues all language.

All communicative acts have intention, a necessary directedness. Our books have intention, a necessary directedness. I visualize my book sailing through the air when I am asked in publishers’ proposal forms: “who is it aimed at?” There is a larger question underlying the market-speak that is harder to answer well: “for whom do we write?” We write for ourselves, for each other, and for loved ones, as if our words were gifts. We also write for those we have read whose words have mattered to us, a ghostly audience of absent authors. Keeping Heidegger in the picture, being in the world entails having things matter to us.[6] The intentionality of style is not unidirectional, where we have designs upon our audience; it involves having an audience that matters to us, that shapes our diction. If saying so suggests that discourse communities determine our style it also harks back to the classical adage that style is formed through habits of reading, that writing is imitatio.[7] The other side of the question — how do we write as we ought? — then is: “whom ought we to read?”

In speaking of style in terms of those whom we read and for whom we write, I have cast style as a kind of choice. In the words of linguistics, style denotes “the tendency of a speaker or writer to consistently choose certain structures over others available in the language.”[8] Insofar as these linguistic choices are conscious they can be changed. Thus we might profitably consider today the performative contradiction within our scholarship between now-commonplace assertions of the inseparability of form and content and a scholarly style that consistently privileges substance over style. In so privileging the one over the other, we announce ourselves as specialists and professionalize our audience. Scholarly style goes hand in hand with professionalization of substance or argument to a specialty.[9] Is that how things ought to be?

Our stylistic choices are also unconsciously made, in illustration of which, I quote from Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye:

Certain tics characterize my writing. … I start too many sentences with but and then try to vary them by changing some of them to still or yet. … But actually to get rid of them and structure my writing so as to avoid them? … I just can’t find a way to do it. I also get anxious that I am using too many justs and evens…. I undertake global searches to see whether I can eliminate some of them. I manage to exchange a couple of them for an only or a mere, but then I fear my onlys and meres are starting to get ticlike. A tough-minded editor would strike out maybe half of these justs and evens because they often do not affect the core sense of the proposition. But I cannot get myself to cut more than one or two because they add an indescribable justness, either just enough of a hedge or just enough emphasis, to situate my level of commitment to my own statements ... In fact, so crucial are they … that I actually get a small feeling of vertigo when I eliminate one. … [I]t is as if I were excising a part of me. Incredible that words that mean virtually nothing mean so much.[10]

How little in control we are of our style. Sometimes I promise myself to have a computational stylometric analysis of my own writing tics. In my daydream I am full of self-understanding brought about by the encounter with my mind’s deep structures; as self-awareness grows, res and verbum converge; my words become like those cabochon crystals on reliquaries where we gaze both through crystalline words and at them, depth and surface indistinguishable. Daydream over, I acknowledge that such a report would bring as much insight as reading about myself in the DSM of Mental Disorders, but a lingering wish remains for a calculative analysis of my scratchings, for a “distant reading” as Franco Moretti calls it that cares not for argument but only counts the cancerous thuses and not only…but alsos that riddle my prose. The existence of this panel suggests the appropriateness of turning our considerable reading skills upon the shared tics that mark initiation into our discourse community. We spent a long time acquiring them. Whether or not we shed them, we might at least make peace with them.


1. Aristotle, Rhetoric, III.2 (1403b).

2. See also “outwith.”

3. Martin Hedigger, Being and Time, §134.

4. Heidegger, Being and Time, §136.

5. Heidegger, Being and Time, §134.

6. Heidegger, Being and Time, §137.

7. As Alexander Pope says, “Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight,/ Read them by Day, and meditate by Night” (“Essay on Criticism”). See also Gerald Graff, “Why How We Read Trumps What We Read,” Profession 2009, p. 73 (66-74): “serious education means assigning texts that possess intrinsic richness, complexity, and value,” if only to give the readers a conceptual framework sufficiently complex to critique those very texts.

8. Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Mary Louise Pratt, Linguistics for Students of Literature (Harcourt Brace, 1980), p. 29.

9. As academics, Jane Gallop observes, “We have been trained to read a book globally: that is, to think of the book as a whole, identify its main idea, and understand all of its parts as fitting together to make up that whole” See Jane Gallop, “The ethics of reading: close encounters,” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 16 (2000): 11 (7–17). Richard Klein speaks of the occasional need in reading to suspend “your need to know in advance where you’re going” and of a book being shaped like a mandala, frustrating any forward progress of linear reading. See Richard Klein, Eat Fat (New York, 1996), pp. xiii–xiv.

10. William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 12.

11. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Tree: Abstract Models for Literary History (Verso, 2005), p. 1.